Dufresne named 2014 “Graduate Mentor of the Year”

Eric Dufresne, associate professor of mechanical engineering & materials science, physics, & cell biology, is the recipient of the Yale Graduate School's 2014 Graduate Mentor Award, the University's principal honor for superb teaching, advising, and mentoring of graduate students. The award was presented at the Graduate School's 2014 Commencement Convocation on Sunday, May 18.

The Graduate Mentor Award recognizes three teachers and advisors—one in the natural sciences, one in the social sciences, and one in the humanities—who have been exceptional in their support of the professional, scholarly, and personal development of their students. Dufresne’s win marks the fourth consecutive year that a SEAS faculty member has won the award in the natural sciences; previous winners include associate professor of chemical & environmental engineering Jordan Peccia in 2011, associate professor of diagnostic radiology, electrical engineering, and biomedical engineering Hemant Tagare in 2012, and associate professor of diagnostic radiology, psychiatry, and biomedical engineering Evan Morris in 2013.

In award nomination letters, Dufresne, who is also director of Center for Engineering Innovation & Design, was described by his students as an extremely creative advisor whose mentoring approach takes into account the nature and complexity of each student’s research, as well as the student’s individual style of working and learning. “Eric cares deeply for his advisees,” said one of his students, “and he cultivates a deep, trusting relationship with each of us. It’s clear that his goal is to help each of us grow as best we can, and that he thinks carefully about how best to guide each individual.”

Along with his advising strengths, Dufesne’s students also praised his work as a teacher and scientist. His advisees said that Dufresne “teaches us technical skills as well as broader tools like asking good questions, formulating hypotheses, designing experiments, and setting priorities.” Another student said that Dufresne’s “infectious enthusiasm for science, knack for creative and elegant solutions, and most importantly, his strong work ethic have remarkably influenced my approach and attitude towards scientific research.” 

Dufresne’s mentoring approach was also admired for addressing the whole of the graduate student experience. For example, he provides his students with documents on “How to Be a Productive and Health Graduate Student,” “How to Write a Paper,” and “How to Write a CV/Resume,” among other topics. Additionally, students remarked on Dufresne’s compassion for his students even in matters not directly related to their studies, a “human, compassionate approach to mentorship” that one student said “has made all the difference in my PhD program.”

In addition to his teaching and mentoring, Dufresne’s research seeks to understand and control the structure and dynamics of soft materials, which encompass the bulk of living tissues as well as diverse engineered materials, from personal care products to energy-efficient electronic-paper displays. Due to their accessible length and time scales, soft materials are great model systems for fundamental experiments in condensed matter physics.

It’s in this field that Dufresne “encourages a culture of curiosity,” an atmosphere that his students find rewarding and meaningful. In remarks he delivered upon receiving the award, Dufresne said that, "Within the laboratory sciences, good mentors mold their research group into a cohesive team. In the best labs, each team member acts as a sort of peer-mentor, providing essential technical and emotional support for the day-to-day struggles of research."

Or as another of his students put it, “I’m learning from him not just how to be a better scientist, but also, by his example, how to be a good advisor.”